The Old Breed: The Priests Who Pastor Beyond Retirement
For a number of priests who have exceeded the age of retirement, parish ministry trumps retirement plans.
PITTSBURGH — In 1957, Elvis bought Graceland, the Dodgers left Brooklyn, and the Soviets launched Sputnik 1, which would ignite the space race. It was also the year Father George DeVille was ordained a priest in the Diocese of Pittsburgh.
Now 85 years old, and ready to celebrate his 60th anniversary as a priest, Father DeVille has no plans to slow down.
“I love working as a priest. Why retire? My health is perfect. I’m not ready for that,” he told the Register.
Even as many diocesan priests retire from ministry, a number of them continue to work into their 80s. Depending on the diocese, and the priest’s health, a resignation letter may be submitted between the ages of 70 and 75. But a bishop does not have to accept that resignation immediately. Priests like Father DeVille can continue to work as long as they have their bishop’s permission.
At the same time, dioceses have to care for the best interests of their priests. In the Diocese of Syracuse, New York, Bishop Robert Cunningham has implemented a rule that all priests must relinquish administrative responsibilities of a parish when they reach age 80. There are 12 priests in the diocese over 80 who will retire July 1.
Dioceses continue to adjust their parish count to the number of priests available. According to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University, in 2016, there were 25,760 diocesan priests. Of that number, 63%, or 16,229 priests, were active in diocesan ministry. The Diocese of Sioux City, Iowa, has decided to move from having 108 parishes to 61, based upon forecasts the diocese will have only 31 active priests available in 2025.
The Diocese of Pittsburgh predicts it will have 112 active priests in 2025, down from 210 today, and continues to consolidate its parishes in response.
Squeezed by a lack of sufficient replacements, and a daunting number of parishes to staff in their sunset years, priests often feel overworked. And they’re not getting any younger. In 1970, the average age of a priest was 35, while in 2009 that had risen to 63.
But for a number of priests who could have retired, parish ministry remains the best means to fulfill their vocation, and they have no interest in giving it up.
Father Paul Sullins, a sociology professor at The Catholic University of America, told the Register that priests on average tend to retire at a later age today than they did a generation ago. The main reason is longer life span, because, “like everyone else, priests tend to live longer today than they did a generation ago.”
So the retirement age in many dioceses has risen in response.
“From a norm of 65 years of age in the 1970s, almost all dioceses today have a retirement age of 70, and some, like Boston, have gone to 75,” Father Sullins said. While financial concerns could lead some priests to delay their retirement, he added, this is a secondary consideration for many.
“Some priests look forward to a change of pace and venue when they retire; most prefer to stay as active as possible in priestly ministry for as long as they can,” he said.
Father Mark Eckman, the clergy personnel vicar in the Diocese of Pittsburgh, told the Register that, regarding retirement, health is an overwhelming factor.
“Priests who are in good health like to remain active as long as possible,” he said. “Those who have failing health sometimes just feel worn-out and do not have the energy to remain active on a full-time basis.”
Most older priests, Father Eckman added, would like to remain active in priestly ministry, but give up the administrative responsibilities of a pastor. The shortage of priests, he explained, is part of the decision-making process in determining retirement, “but once again, the greatest factor is the health of the priests.”
Working Through Old Age
Father DeVille’s experience bears that out; he told the Register that he wasn’t sure what he would do in retirement and had no plans to leave his parish, but “if my health goes, I’ll retire.”
“Being a priest is just one of the easiest vocations to really help people spiritually, mentally, physically — it’s so little effort to really help people. It’s a great life, really,” he said. “And I would say very exciting. Things have shown up in my life I’ve never expected.”
Early in his priesthood, Father DeVille was sent by his bishop on a one-year research grant at a psychiatric hospital. That led him to spend 37 years ministering to the mentally ill in hospitals, teaching his work to seminarians in the summer. He jokes that seminarians he taught back then have already taken their retirement.
At age 69, he went to then-Bishop Donald Wuerl, telling him, “You know, I’d like to be a pastor before I die.” He has been at Holy Rosary, a parish southwest of Pittsburgh, ever since.
The priest’s work has not let up as age increases.
“I’ve never worked so hard as a priest as I have in my old age,” Father DeVille said. When he began his ministry, there were 600 priests in the diocese. With far fewer priests now, there is less time for vacation, or for establishing sports teams and attending the games.
“You couldn’t do that today; you just don’t have the time,” he said.
A 2002 CARA paper found that 72% of priests responding to a survey felt overworked at least sometimes; 71% reported working more than 50 hours a week, with 18% estimating they worked 80-plus hours a week.
Danielle Cummings, chancellor for the Diocese of Syracuse, told the Register that the bishop created the mandatory retirement policy on the advice of two consultative groups, which recommended that priests at 80 should end their administrative responsibilities. Cummings acknowledged that it was a difficult decision to make. While the diocese desires to let priests over 80 enjoy their lives without worrying about a parish, she said, “the flipside is that those who are over 80 enjoy that life. It’s not an easy issue.”
“The fact that you have 13 priests over the age of 80 who are still either an administrator or pastor speaks to the fact that they love their ministry,” she said. “They certainly would admit I think, overall, that the day-to-day aspects may at times be overwhelming, but I think their overall love of being in a parish was enriching for them. They receive so much in return for being in that role.”
Cummings told the Register that within the context of parish consolidation, “some changes to parishes are triggered by retirement,” and a parish could close or merge because of losing their priest. “That’s a great deal of personal responsibility on the part of the pastor. And they have to think about that aspect of continuing their ministry.”
Register correspondent Nicholas Wolfram Smith writes from Rochester, New York.
US Priests, by the Numbers
Average age in 1970: 35
Average age in 2009: 63
Total Number of Diocesan Priests in 1970: 37,272
Total Number of Diocesan Priests in 2016: 25,760
Ordinations in 1970: 805
Ordinations in 2016: 548
Total Number of Parishes in 1970: 18,224
Total Number of Parishes in 2016: 17,233
Parishes without a resident pastor in 1970: 571
Parishes without a resident pastor in 2016: 3,499
Catholic Population in 1970: 47.9 million
Catholic Population in 2016: 67.7 million
Source: Georgetown University